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A Cigar Smoker's Paradise

Living in Cuba is as close to Nirvana as a stogie lover can get
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

(continued from page 1)

Cubans do swear a lot. But I had a good laugh when I found out that foreigners are called yumas and not gringos, which is what Mexicans call Americans. Both are derogatory, but the best conclusion local linguists can come up with is that the slang use of Yuma (which is actually a Native American word for the Arizonan tribe) derives from the country's fascination with the old Glenn Ford movie, The 3:10 to Yuma.

I realized finally that I was not going to learn excellent Spanish in a month even though mine did improve a lot. What I did discover is how much there is to do every day in Havana. On previous visits, I was usually too tied up with cigar events and meetings to check out other goings on in the capital. However, on this visit, I went to a museum, concert, ballet, jazz gig, or opera just about every day. And when I didn't, I regretted it, as something was usually happening that I was sorry to miss.

I became friends with a fantastic jazz pianist, Ernan Lopez-Nussa. He is considered the second best keyboard man on the island behind the amazing Chucho Valdez. Not only is Lopez-Nussa a maestro, he is a keen cigar smoker. We smoked a number of great cigars together. He even organized lessons with the pianist from the Buena Vista Social Club for my 14-year-old son Jack when he visited me for a week.

I also spent time with some amazing artists including Roberto Fabelo, Yoan Capote, and Harry Sam, and I attended various openings of art exhibits and showings. The Havana art world is intense and varied, a window on the inner soul of Cubans. Cuban art appears to be taking the world by storm. Some say it is the next big thing in the modern art world after Chinese artists.

Among the new friends that I made was Carlos Acosta, the lead dancer for The Royal Ballet in London. The Habanero is an amazing dancer and a cool, young guy. What an accomplishment to be part of The Royal Ballet, which is making a historic visit to Havana for 10 days in July. He was working on a program for CNN while he was in town visiting friends and family. Carlos is also an avid cigar smoker.

Of course, cigars were a central part of just about every experience. It was like the peace pipe of the Native American—a shared instrument of pleasure to improve communication among men and women. The only problem was deciding what to smoke each day. I would just drop into a cigar shop and pick out what I wanted that day. Or there were always smokes from the reserve collections of a few friends with lockers in cigar shops or in their home. I was spoiled rotten.

While antismoking laws were passed on the island a few years ago, no one seems to pay attention to them. I smoked just about everywhere I went, except for a police station and a hospital. (No explanation necessary in those two instances.) It's amazing how well you feel smoking cigars in Cuba. I guess it's because of the climate—the warm weather and high humidity. I like to say that Havana is one big natural humidor. Your clothes don't even smell of smoke at the end of the day, even if you have smoked three or four cigars!

Cubans love smoking cigars. The rolled leaf of a Habano is like fermented grape juice to a Frenchman or a pint of beer to an Englishman. The domestic market still consumes about 200 million cigars annually. Cigars are no longer included in their ration of food and house staples, but Cubans only have to spend a few cents to buy domestic quality cigars. Most are hand made but with short filler tobacco.

Following a dinner at a friend's apartment, my pianist friend said, "smoking a cigar is a pleasure and tradition in Cuba that everyone enjoys. It would be considered rude not to smoke a cigar if they were handed out after a meal or during a get-together of friends."

I fondly remember hours of sitting outside on terraces of houses or sitting rooms of apartments, or in restaurants in Havana with friends like Ernan talking about everything from the improvements of relations with the U. S. government to the tobacco crop to the latest art or music in Paris or London. The erudite Habanero is as educated and pensive as any members of the intelligencia in London, Paris, Rome, New York or any other sophisticated city in the world. I smoked a lot of cigars over those few weeks. Strangely, I smoked a lot of the same ones. I don't know why. I mostly smoked current production Ramon Allones Specially Selected, 2008 Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada, and 1998 Trinidad Fundadores.

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